Chile, the country of birds

Javiera Ferreyra, Audubon Américas Chile director, shares her vision of the country's bird species and habitat richness. This text was initially published by Plataforma Costera.

Chile is the country of birds. The statement can sound exaggerated; many experts could argue that we are far behind in bird diversity compared to countries like Colombia -which could claim its title. But I do not want to be untruthful and hope that after reading this column, you can also proudly state that Chile is the country of birds.

I'll start from the basics. In Chile, we find 528 species of birds, of which 322 breed in the country. These numbers may seem small if we compare ourselves with other countries. But those 528 bird species are enough to mobilize 117 new birders, according to data from eBird Chile. That places us fifth in the list of countries with the highest number of new eBirders during the last October Big Day. 

According to the same source, Chile ranks sixth in the list of countries with the highest number of checklists, with a total of 2,958, surpassed by the United States, Canada, Colombia, India, and Costa Rica (the latter with only one more checklist). A new birdwatching market study to be launched soon by Audubon Americas estimates that birdwatchers in our country amount to a little more than 19,000, and the trend is upward. There is something about Chile and its birds that attracts the attention of so many people.

It is partly due to the fantastic colors of some of our birds, like the emblematic Siete colores, the Loica común, and the Picaflor de Juan Fernandez, to name a few that delight us with a range of bright colors. But also on account of those birds whose gray and brown tones challenge us to sharpen our eyesight to find them. And perhaps most importantly, our country provides an immense diversity of ecosystems; some would even say that Chile has latitudes for all birds. From the Atacama Desert (the driest in the world), the high plateau, the Andes, and coastal mountain range to the temperate forests, evergreen forests, Patagonia, sub-Antarctic forests, Antarctica itself, our extensive coastline, and its many wetlands. Let us not forget the island ecosystems and the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. 

These landscapes demonstrate the uniqueness and great value of the birds that inhabit this corner of the planet. Chile is home to 5% of the world's birds, representing 56% of the existing bird orders. Many of them are endemic to the southern cone of South America.

Zarapito común (Numenius phaeopus) en el humedal Rocuant Andalién. Crédito: ChileBirds.
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) at the Rocuant Andalién wetland. Photo: ChileBirds.

In addition, Chile plays a crucial role in the protection of bird populations worldwide. Just look at a few facts. It is the second country with the second highest number of globally threatened seabird species and where many of these birds breed. From October to March, Chile provides shelter and food for hundreds of thousands of migratory shorebirds before undertaking challenging and strenuous journeys to reach their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere. The wintering sites of these birds, as is the case of our country, are equally essential to ensure viable populations of these species. And the science is unequivocal: what happens at the wintering sites of these migratory species will determine their reproductive success and, therefore, their future.

Chile has taken this role seriously and has prioritized bird protection on the national conservation agenda. For the first time, the country has a National Bird Conservation Strategy (ENCA in Spanish) led by the State. It seeks to control, mitigate, and eradicate threats to birds and their habitats in Chile by 2030. This Plan has already been integrated into the national environmental policy, formalized through Exempt Resolution N°50 of January 2022.

While developing the ENCA, more than 2,200 people participated through workshops, surveys, dialogues, and consultations, representing civil society, public services, academia, NGOs, and the private sector. Across the board, the birds brought together various sectors that agreed on priorities and action lines to protect them and the benefits they bring to people and communities. And this is all more valuable because, in times of uncertainty after the social outbreak and amid a health crisis, more than 2,200 people decided that speaking for birds was a priority.

The most striking aspect of this process is that the spirit has not waned over time. Last October, the Anahuac House at the Metropolitan Park held an event to present the Strategy's final document and launch its Implementation Operating Committee. Composed of 24 representatives from the public sector, academia, and NGOs, it has the leadership of the Ministry of the Environment. 

Sixty people attended the event, including the Minister and the Undersecretary of the Environment, the Undersecretary of Tourism, the directors of the Metropolitan Park, and the director of the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games. It is no coincidence that Fiu, the Siete Colores, was chosen as the official mascot for this great international sporting event. They were joined by members of the Operating Committee, media, people linked to the world of the arts, and families. All gathered to reaffirm once again that birds unite us.

Now I want to go deeper. A plan can be outlined in a participatory manner and look very nice on paper - with a stunning layout and incredible photographs- and also share many good intentions. But the truth is that without concrete actions, it is just another coffee-table book for our offices and homes. This Strategy is far from being a compendium of admirable intentions: we have already made progress in actions and leveraging funding from different sources.

Lanzamiento del Comité Operativo de Implementación de la ENCA en la casa Anáhuac del Parque Metropolitano.
Launch of the Operational Committee for the Implementation of the ENCA, Anahuac house, Parque Metropolitano.

For example, the Chilean Bird and Wildlife Watchers Network (ROC in Spanish, funded by the NGO Manomet) developed the Shorebird Action Plan. Experts have been called to participate, and members of the Strategy Committee, which seeks to prioritize urgent actions to advance the protection of this group of birds. For our part, Audubon Americas has provided funding for developing and implementing the Strategy. In addition, we conducted the first market analysis of bird tourism in Chile (to be published soon). We will launch a training program for birding guides and local entrepreneurs. 

Together with ROC, we also study the conservation needs of seabirds and shorebirds in the national network of marine protected areas. This recent study will be essential to advance an action plan for seabirds. In addition, we will continue developing the wetland bird action plan and a gap analysis of public policies needed to successfully implement the Strategy.

Likewise, the Ministry of the Environment allocated resources to design the national bird monitoring system, which ROC carries out. The Ministry of Energy supports investigations that analyze the impact of electricity transmission and renewable energy generation projects on birds and their habitats, especially those meant to produce green hydrogen. The results and possible solutions will inform and complement recommendations for the sustainable development of green hydrogen. Meanwhile, the GEF/MMA/UNEP Coastal Wetlands project has provided funding during the elaboration process. It continues to support the implementation of the ENCA.

The above is to name a few of the advances reported recently. Still, I am sure that many more are advancing and contributing from local work at critical sites for birds: Fundación Bandada, a member of the ENCA Operating Committee, is working in the Rocuant-Andalién Wetland-Marsh, an IBA listed as Endangered, to ensure American oystercatcher's breeding success; Fundación Cosmos is doing the same in the Río Maipo Natural Sanctuary; while the Cape Horn International Center is advancing in the scientific study of sub-Antarctic forest birds, among other initiatives.

Only birds are capable of uniting and bringing so many people into action. Birds speak loud and clear: it is the task of all of us to contribute our grain of sand to this Strategy's success. All activities count and are essential. From our communities, we can contribute and generate an immensely positive impact on birds, even by planting native species in our gardens and balconies. Today we are not only valuing our birds: we are moving from words to actions. Chile now understands that protecting birds is to ensure our future, which is why I dare to say that Chile is the country of birds.